Chicago banker, lawyer who served 5 governors rejected for state gambling license
The Illinois Gaming Board rejected former Illinois Tollway board member James J. Banks for the coveted license, saying his ‘business and social associations . . . would discredit or tend to discredit the Illinois gaming industry.’
For decades, under five governors, Chicago attorney and banker James J. Banks served on the board of the Illinois Tollway system, helping oversee the state agency until he and other members were dumped amid a reform push as Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office in 2019.
But now the Illinois Gaming Board has rejected Banks’ application for a video gambling license, citing requirements including having “good character, honesty and integrity” and saying he “did not meet the requirements” for the lucrative state license.
“The board conducted an investigation which included a review of your business and social associations,” gaming board administrator Marcus D. Fruchter wrote earlier this year in a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. “Based on the results of that investigation, the board finds that your business and social associations would adversely affect public confidence and trust in video gaming and would discredit or tend to discredit the Illinois gaming industry.”
As a result, Fruchter wrote, the gaming board decided that granting Banks’ company the “terminal operator license” that it wanted “would not serve the interests of the citizens of Illinois.”
Banks, 58, whose late father was a criminal defense lawyer and whose uncle, former Ald. William J.P. Banks, represented the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward on the Chicago City Council for more than 25 years, is appealing the April 21 gaming board decision.
The letter doesn’t offer any details of the gaming board’s findings. And officials of the state agency, which regulates casino and video gambling in Illinois, won’t say which associations they found troubling.
Banks’ appeal is expected to be considered at a closed-door hearing.
Banks, who lives in a mansion on the Gold Coast, won’t comment.
Donna Hondorp, a spokeswoman for his company, says: “Since this matter is ongoing, our comments are limited, and our attention is focused on the IGB administrative process. Mr. Banks is pleased that the IGB granted Gaming Productions’ request for a hearing and looks forward to further establishing that it is suitable and deserving of a license consistent with the IGB’s standards. We are confident the IGB will grant a terminal operator license to Gaming Productions after our case is presented and reviewed with all the appropriate facts.
“Mr. Banks is proud of his career to date as well as his personal and professional relationships,” Hondorp says, “and strongly disputes that any of them disqualify him from holding a license.”
Illinois law says an “applicant has the burden to demonstrate its qualifications and suitability for licensure to the satisfaction” of the gaming board, Fruchter said in the letter.
He also cited a law that bars anyone from getting a gaming license “if that person has been found by the board to . . . have a background, including a criminal record, reputation, habits, social or business associations or prior activities that pose a threat to the public interests of the state or to the security and integrity of video gaming.”
Fruchter wrote that state law says the board “may not grant any video gaming license until the board is satisfied that the applicant is” someone who “does not present questionable business practices and financial arrangements incidental to the conduct of video gaming activities” and who doesn’t associate with “persons of notorious or unsavory reputation or what have extensive police records.”
In 2006, Banks founded Belmont Bank & Trust on the Northwest Side. The bank’s board of directors’ early members included his father Samuel V.P. Banks, a criminal defense lawyer who represented reputed mob figures.
Other members of the bank board have included Fred B. Barbara, longtime friend of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and waste-hauling magnate whose trucking company made a fortune hauling garbage for the city of Chicago, and former state Sen. James A. DeLeo, a longtime Banks friend and business associate who once owned a casino in Aruba.
Four Belmont Bank board members’ names came up during the landmark 2007 Operation Family Secrets trial of Chicago Outfit bosses and others, though none of the four was charged:
- A convicted burglar testified that he bribed police officers by passing money through Samuel Banks, who wasn’t charged with any crime.
- A mobster’s widow testified that James Banks and DeLeo, who also weren’t charged, cheated her when she sold them a restaurant.
- And Nick Calabrese — a prolific mob hit man who, at the Family Secrets trial, became the first “made” member ever to testify against the Chicago Outfit — testified that Barbara participated in the bombing of an Elmwood Park restaurant in the early 1980s, though he was never charged.
DeLeo — at the time an Illinois state representative — was indicted in 1989 by a federal grand jury in the Operation Greylord investigation that charged him with failing to pay taxes on bribes it said he took while a top aide to Cook County’s chief traffic court judge. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, and DeLeo ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal that let him hold onto his legislative seat.
Asked about Banks’ gaming license application being denied, DeLeo says: “I don’t know anybody that’s squarer than Jimmy Banks. If I was him, I’d sue the gaming board. How could they say that about him? He’s never even had a parking ticket.”
Belmont Bank was the bank of choice for Chicago’s Cinespace Studios when Nick Mirkopoulos opened it about a decade ago. The studio got $27.3 million in state grants from then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and deposited that in the bank, records show.
Since Mirkopoulos’ death, the West Side TV and movie studio has been run by his nephew Alexander Pissios, who became an FBI mole in 2016 after federal authorities threatened to charge him with bankruptcy fraud. Pissios worked with prosecutors in their case against longtime former Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr., who pleaded guilty to failing to pay taxes on payments he extorted from Pissios.
Pissios bought a home in Long Grove with a $2.4 million loan from Belmont Bank, and he hired Banks’ sister for an administrative job at the studio.
Banks was first appointed to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority in 1993 by then-Gov. Jim Edgar. Govs. George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Quinn and Bruce Rauner all kept him on the board.
At the time he started with the tollway — where the board of directors is responsible for overseeing nearly 300 miles of pavement, five toll roads and billions in taxpayer dollars — Banks was 30 and running a pizza business. He since has become one of Chicago’s most influential zoning lawyers. Banks frequently appeared before the Chicago City Council Zoning Committee when his uncle was an alderman and, as chairman of the committee, a key gatekeeper for development proposals.
Banks and his wife Grace Sergio own a real estate company, Sergio & Banks. He also runs the Loop law firm that formerly was his late father’s firm. A fellow attorney at the firm is listed as the incorporating agent for Banks’ gaming company.
According to paperwork filed with the gaming board, Banks’ gaming company would “own various gaming terminals” and it would “place such terminals for use in those establishments which are permitted by the Illinois Video Gaming Act.”
Such devices are legal for gambling in restaurants, bars and other establishments in many suburbs but not in the city of Chicago.